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[THE OSCARS] | MEXIWOOD

Latinos are ready for their Kodak moments

A rising film industry profile has some observers wondering why now, what's next and what took so long.

February 25, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

AS an exercise in pre-Oscar schmoozing, the event was not so unusual: the heaping sushi platters, the sweaty crush of deal-makers and their glammed-up significant others, the occasional bona-fide celebrity pretending to be inconspicuous (Hello, Ian McShane).

But as an exercise in inter-studio cooperation, the party this month at the Sofitel was no garden-variety fiesta. For one thing, it's rare during the cutthroat frenzy of Oscar season for three distributors (Paramount, Universal and Picturehouse, in this case) to band together to celebrate and promote their artists.

Even more notable was the party's subtext: the emergence of Mexican and Latin American filmmaking talent as one of the most potent new forces in Hollywood. (The bash likely was the first ever held for multiple Oscar nominees to feature a live mariachi band.)

This phenomenon goes beyond last year's striking achievements of the Mexican directors being toasted at the Sofitel -- Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel"), Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") and Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men") -- whose movies have been collecting awards by the bushel. The soiree was a tacit acknowledgment of the dynamic new Latino film colony that's blossoming on once-inhospitable Hollywood back lots.

"It's still very much in its infancy, but clearly you see indications that it's being developed," says Manny Gonzalez, vice president and managing director of Hill Holliday Hispanic/abece, a Miami-based ad agency that specializes in the Latino market. Hollywood's new Latino enclave not only testifies to the amount of talent coming from Mexico and other Latin countries, Gonzalez says, but to the creative freedom and the resources that U.S. pop culture can offer, which "just simply don't exist in Mexico."

Besides Inarritu and Del Toro, both of whom have been living and working in Hollywood for years, the growing Spanish-speaking/bilingual community centered in Los Angeles includes director Sergio Arau ("A Day Without a Mexican"), the Mexican actresses Ana Claudia Talancon (HBO's "Whitney"), Ana de la Reguera ("Nacho Libre") and Sandra Echeverria (star of the telenovela "Marina"), and the Oscar-nominated Mexican American director of photography Rodrigo Prieto ("Brokeback Mountain," "Babel").

At tonight's Oscars, Latinos will be represented by a group of nominees that includes Spanish actress Penelope Cruz ("Volver"), Mexican actress Adriana Barraza ("Babel"), Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga ("Babel"), sound mixer Fernando Camara (part of the trio that did "Apocalypto"), Mexican cinematographers Emmanuel Lubezki ("Children of Men") and Guillermo Navarro ("Pan's Labyrinth"), and Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla, up for best original score for "Babel."

Whether they are Southern California residents or just frequent visitors for film projects, the members of this cluster all are playing a role in acculturating non-Latino audiences to the concerns, sensibilities and musical palette of the Spanish-speaking world.

Of course, in some respects it's misleading to lump these disparate talents under the monolithic "Latino" rubric. As has been duly noted in recent weeks, modern movie-making, and especially modern movie financing, is a complex, globalized enterprise that makes it difficult to say anymore with certainty that a given project belongs to this or that country, or expresses a distinct national worldview. That's particularly true of a film such as "Babel," whose plot encompasses four countries and uses six languages (Spanish, English, Japanese, Arabic, Berber and sign language).

Even so, many of this year's Latino Oscar nominees repeatedly have asserted that their movies reflect certain aesthetic tendencies and/or thematic preoccupations that they think of as being recognizably Latin or Latin American. What's changing is that, more and more, other parts of the world are beginning to see their own experiences mirrored in the alluring, shifting surfaces of Latin life.

Screenwriter Arriaga says he thinks of "Babel" as an even more Mexican film than "21 Grams," his previous collaboration with Inarritu and part of the "trilogy" that began with the duo's "Amores Perros" in 2000. As a Mexican screenwriter (and novelist) working on a vast global canvas, Arriaga says he feels "like I am a soccer player who goes and plays in another league." He has been offered movie deals in China, India, Sweden, Belgium, Brazil and Argentina, he says, but chooses to live and work principally in his native Mexico City because he believes it energizes his writing.

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